A political tug of war has waged over Darlington for decades - the town pulled between left and right; red and blue; small state conservatism to interventionist socialism.

But, in the coming months, incumbent Conservative Peter Gibson faces an uphill struggle on the campaign trail from the West End to the Denes if he is to keep his seat.

Polls show that for much of the public there is still anger over Partygate, crony PPE contracts, and Liz Truss’s short tenure in Number 10.

For Darlington’s MP, however, there might be more reasons to be hopeful than many would think.

A walk round the town centre revealed business owners rarely had a bad word to say about him.

Talking to most people made it clear that there was one concern which was uppermost in their minds and it wasn’t one of the big issues, it was the death of the high street.

When I talked to people who have lived in Darlington all their lives, or have come to the town to do their shopping for years, many of them looked back on the glory days of what it used to be.

Rose Wills, 65, is the manager of St Teresa’s Hospice charity shop in the centre of town. 

She explained that the issue she hears customers talking about most is the lack of people.

The Labour leader of Darlington Borough Council, Stephen Harker, announced that the two hours of free parking in the town centre in council car parks would be scrapped in July 2023.

At the time he said there was no provision in the budget to continue the scheme.

Ms Wills said: “It’s the car parking that is putting people off. Lots of people are now just shopping on the internet. They only go into big supermarkets.

“A lot of our customers that come in are elderly. It just seems like the town is dying off.

“When I was younger it was a big place. If we brought the free parking back, that might encourage more people to come in, even if it was just for an hour.”

Her colleague, Jean Cornforth, shared a lot of her opinions. One silver lining that she believed was benefitting the region was the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen.

She said: “The mayor has been good for bringing investment to the region and we are enjoying the benefits of that.

“Particularly with the airport. It’s a huge asset to everyone here.”

Another local issue which has been concerning residents is the number of years many residents have gone since having a dental appointment.

In Darlington the MP has made it a priority to replace the closed facility at Firthmoor Community Centre.

It has been 10 months since the centre closed and the NHS provider says it needs more time to find a provider.

Feelings on the national political picture were even bleaker.

Rachael Hughes, 42, summed up what a lot of people seemed to think when she said: “I think both parties are b****y useless.”

She added: “The big thing for us is to support the community and the high street. 

“We should be attracting people in. Peter Gibson does stand up for the community. I quite like him.”

For some people, the local issues faded into the background in favour of the bigger issue of immigration and the Rwanda bill.

Nobody was satisfied with the government’s handling of the issue - some thought it went too far and others not far enough.

One of the first people I walked past on my way to the Darlington high street made it clear that she disapproved of the Rwanda policy.

Diane told me that she watched the news every day and when I asked her what issue she cared about most ahead of the general election she said “obviously the Rwanda issue”.

She continued: “I think they have got it all wrong. Then they are putting the pension ages up too.

“Obviously, these things affect us and that’s not to mention the state of the NHS. It’s just not getting enough money put into it.”

Seineade Stainsby, 51, didn’t think that the government had done enough despite ‘Stopping the boats’ being a flagship policy.

She said: “Lots of people are coming into this country. We can’t afford to house our own people never mind opening our doors and letting more people in.”

The 51-year-old wanted to see a move to the Australian point-style immigration system.

Rounding off my walk around Darlington I popped into the Vineyard Cafe and spoke to Phil and Lisa Crosby who both had a very positive vision of Darlington’s future.

They were concerned by energy costs, telling me that they were being “crippled” by extortionate bills.

The latest forecast, from consultancy firm Cornwall Insight, could provide some comfort to them as energy prices are expected to fall from April.

Phil said: “We would really like to see something to help businesses.

“We are getting through 10 to 15% of our income straight into electricity here, not to mention water.”

But when asked about the future of the town they were both very positive. 

They mentioned the government buying the Brunswick site in Darlington as a second home of the Treasury as a sign that the future is bright.

The Northern Echo:

The purchase was made in September 2023 and it is expected to bring 1,400 civil servants to the town.

Phil added: “I think Darlington is up and coming. 

“November and December were our best months ever. People are using the lack of free car parking as an excuse for their businesses not doing well.

“The Treasury moving up here is such a good sign, people will follow and move up here.

“Generally speaking, we are in an exciting place as a town. Peter Gibson is doing a fab job for the town.

“He seems to genuinely care about the issues affecting us.”

It was nice to end my walk around town on such a positive note. 

In the months building up to the election, it will be interesting to see if parliamentary candidates are listening to the people of Darlington.

Mr Gibson emphasised that if he is re-elected he will continue to work to bring in new investment to the town. 

He said: "I have worked hard to deliver new jobs, new training opportunities and new investment in infrastructure for our community.

"I will continue in that mission and work to stop the boats, cut inflation, reduce the waiting lists, cut taxes and grow the economy."

Lola McEvoy, Labour's candidate, wants to focus on the potential for 'Green Growth' in Darlington.

She said: "I am excited about the opportunity for Green Growth in our town and region. After 14 years we are in need of a change and Labour has a plan to get our town back on track.

"Our plan to grow our economy will tackle the cost-of-living crisis by focusing on bringing private investment to the region and creating the next generation of skilled, good quality green jobs, while stabilising our energy supply and bills. 

"Our plan will secure the country's finances giving us the economic security we need to invest in our public services. I will champion better mental health services for every age group because it's not only the right thing to do but it makes economic sense too.  If you lend me your vote I will earn your trust and together we can deliver for Darlington."

Matthew Snedker, the Green Party candidate, wants to see more investment in transport, social services and the redevelopment of the town centre.

He said: "We need to be improving the early years of children's lives. That includes support for women before they give birth and afterwards. That should be support from the first two years to five years on.

"We need to see more truly affordable and social housing being built. People should have access to shops and schools close to them, within a 15 minute walk.

"There needs to be more development of the town centre, we need more people living in the centre."

Simon Thorley, the Liberal Democrat candidate, outlined his top four priorities are anti-poverty action, environmental action, town centre regeneration and the NHS.

This follows a North East Child Poverty Commission report that revealed one in three babies, young children and teenagers in the region is living in poverty.

He said: "More than 30% of Darlington's children are growing up in poverty - an absolutely scandalous rate. Child poverty is both morally unacceptable and hugely expensive for taxpayers, as children who grow up in poverty are much more likely to require state support throughout their lives. I will make reducing child poverty my core overarching ambition for as long as I am MP. 

"We all want to see a town centre that is vibrant and full of life, not depressing empty shops and offices. I will use all available tools as MP to see that our town centre is rejuvenated and made fit for purpose once again.

"Anyone who has tried to find an NHS dentist in Darlington knows how dire the local situation is. As MP I will work to reform NHS dentistry so that all communities have reliable and consistent access to services as and when they need them."